Chai, Darjeeling and Assam.
This week’s book is remarkable.
For proof, firstly look to its central theme of apportioning love in a three-person romantic relationship. This is quite a jump from the oft-seen love triangle trope – it’s a whole different ball game in its psychology and the struggle to find peace with your standing in relation to the others involved. If all three individuals feel equally strongly about the two others (unlikely to be the case to begin with), does everybody win? Does everybody lose? Is it better for all three to be somewhat happy than for two to be very happy and one to be miserable? It harks to some of the questions about how to maximise happiness raised by the Greatest Happiness Principle – and in this case Beavoir’s three decide, some might say naively, that all three of them can be very happy and screw you naysayers. I should add, though, that man-in-the-middle Pierre is definitely more keen than his partner Françoise to get a pretty young thing from the country involved. She mainly goes along with it out of love for him – so make of that what you will. I keep spoilers to a minimum around here, but you can probably surmise for yourselves that things do not end well.
The scotch bonnet in the already spicy chilli of ‘She Came to Stay’ is Simone de Beauvoir’s personal romantic circumstance. She spent her life in an open relationship with fellow philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, and ‘She Came to Stay’ is widely acknowledged to be a fictionalised account of Beauvoir and Sartre’s relationship with Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz – in which the character Xavière represents an amalgamation of the sisters.
De Beauvoir has said of her book ‘The Second Sex‘: “The book now plays an activist role but it wasn’t conceived that way”, and I think that it’s important to bear this sentiment in mind when approaching ‘She Came to Stay’, too. I’m not saying that there was no embedded message or meaning to the work; there undoubtedly is. What I mean is that it is too easy – given our knowledge of de Beauvoir’s situation – to link every small detail of the book to her life and treat it as her making a personal comment. Simone De Beauvoir was not a shy woman, and had she wanted to write an autobiographical exposition of her lifestyle I think she would have published an essay. The fact that she chose to write a novel says to me that she wanted to question and explore the themes which were prevalent in her life, to manipulate and play with them and maybe attempt to understand them more deeply as a result.
Many of the questions she raises go unanswered, and we are left with an hangover of ambiguity about culpability and personal freedom, the justifications for jealousy, the legitimacy of violence, the temptations of deliberate indiscretion and the struggle for balance between our experience of ourselves as simultaneously solitary and interwined with others.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
I reckon that you could find a lot of similar themes raised by ‘The Great Gatsby’ if you take its characters at face value and not as an allegory – in other words, when you’re not preoccupied by chasing the American Dream hur hur hur.
On my own list for further reading is ‘The Second Sex’ by de Beauvoir. If you’ve read it yourself please do let me know what you thought in the comments!
What do you think?
What is your favourite literary love triangle? Please don’t say Bella-Edward-Jacob.
Artwork credit: ‘Men in Her Life’ by Andy Warhol: Silkscreen painting of Elizabeth Taylor at the Epsom Derby with her husband of the time and her husband-to-be.
n.b. See also this fascinating interview.